WASHINGTON – Low black voter turnout helped Republicans take surprisingly easy victories in key Southern states, say political observers, who suggest Democratic overtures to blacks may have been too little, too late.
Black voter drives by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former President Clinton on the final weekend before Florida's gubernatorial election failed to keep Gov. Jeb Bush from winning another term.
In Georgia, where the county with the most blacks saw 13,000 fewer voters than four years earlier, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Sen. Max Cleland both lost to lesser-known Republican challengers.
The GOP also wrested control of the governor's office in South Carolina and was locked in a tight race for the top job in Alabama, too. And the Republicans held on to four open Southern seats in the Senate.
"How can this happen?'' asked University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. "One of two ways: Either, one, blacks didn't turn out. Or, two, blacks were voting Republican. I think blacks not turning out is more likely.''
Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who was defeated in this year's Democratic primary in Georgia, said Tuesday's "stunning general election debacle'' shows that the Democrats failed to value their traditional black base.
"While the national pundits postulate on the reasons why minority voters didn't turn out, minority voters themselves know the truth,'' she said. "For generations, the Democratic Party has taken the minority vote for granted.''
McKinney said black voters delivered victories for both Barnes and Cleland in their last elections, "but these two stunning victories failed to see sufficient returns for blacks in Georgia.''
As she shopped outside a suburban Atlanta grocery store Wednesday, 41-year-old Beverly Lee said she didn't vote because she never believed Democrats were in serious trouble.
"Now I wish I had voted,'' she said. "I had no idea it would turn out like this.''
Because of the lack of exit poll data, it is not yet clear exactly how big a factor the black vote was. But there was anecdotal evidence in several states.
Henry Crespo, president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus, said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride failed to connect with black voters in South Florida, despite the backing of some key local leaders.
"Clearly, what he did was go to a couple of chiefs to get their approval and expect us to come out and vote for him with a promise for a pie when historically we only get crumbs,'' Crespo said. "The black electorate is smarter than that.''
In South Carolina, Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges' campaign estimated it fell several percentage points below the 30 percent black vote it needed for victory. In a quick survey of the five most heavily black counties in South Carolina, the activist group Palmetto Project estimated that Hodges lost 11 percent of the black vote he had in 1998, executive director Steve Skardon said.
Combined with white "aginners'' — those who are against whoever happens to be in office at the time — that was enough to cost Hodges the election, Skardon said.
While the Democrats won a Senate seat in Arkansas and the Tennessee governor's mansion, the rest of the South was a Republican romp. The Republicans held on to open Republican Senate seats in Tennessee, Texas and the Carolinas. In North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole won Jesse Helms' seat by a 9-point margin.
A recent poll by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that younger black adults are increasingly more politically independent and less likely to identify themselves as members of the Democratic Party. But without detailed voter data, center pollster David Bositis was not ready to read much into Tuesday's election.
"OK, Georgia, it's true the Democrats lost the governor and Senate, but they won lieutenant governor,'' he said. "Two black candidates running statewide — attorney general and commissioner of labor — won. The Democrats picked up two seats in the (U.S.) House. That points to things being ambiguous.''
Bob Holmes, director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at Clark Atlanta University, said it was premature to lay the Democratic losses at the feet of the black voter.
"The biggest difference was the continued trend and defection of white Democrats to the Republican Party, and also the growth of Republicans,'' said Holmes, who is black. "We did our thing.''